Etrian Odyssey II: Heroes of Lagaard hands-on preview

In the midst of game designers stumbling over themselves to reach into the newfound wallets of “casual gamers,” it’s nice to see a game like Etrian Odyssey 2. Aimed solely at the traditional hardcore gamer, Etrian Odyssey 2 is an old school dungeon crawling grind fest that makes no apologies. There are no tutorials or training levels, and after a brief introduction you’re thrown into the Labyrinth and ordered to create a map of the area, introducing you to the game’s most unique feature, its map making system (more on this later). With a threadbare plot involving a floating castle and little else to go on, you create a guild of intrepid explorers to brave the punishing difficulty of the Labyrinth.

The game allows so much party and character customization that it can be overwhelming at times. At every level up it’s the player’s responsibility to distribute talent points to each character, and juggling them between stats and abilities becomes an engrossing process. Each class has a number of talents that it excels at, but you’re free to give your healer big rippling muscles and nomagic abilitiesif you’re so inclined. Just don’t be surprised when your party gets stomped by a T-Rex while your medic is busy flexing and asking everyone if they want tickets to the “Gun Show.”

EO2 is not a game for the casual player or those uninitiated to RPGs. It’s incredibly frugal with experience and cash and you’ll quickly learn to treasure every coin and point you receive. Between paying for Four Seasons priced inn visits and warp wires (a device that bails you out of the dungeon if you’ve gone in too deep for your own good), you’ll be so strapped for cash that a new hairpin for your alchemist will be a momentous event. The game’s brutal difficulty also extends to its bosses and mini bosses, who are represented in the dungeon as huge pulsing orange spheres. Far tougher than their regular brethren, these orbs lurk in almost every other room, adding a sense of dread to exploring the dungeon. They move twice as fast as your party and, given the small quarters and narrow hallways, you’re going to be catching more beat downs than the kid that reminds the teacher she forgot to assign homework.

The game also has a few unique features up its sleeves to add some zest to its otherwise traditional gameplay. Foremost is its inclusion of a map making function using the DS’s touch screen. As you progress through the dungeon it’s up to you to chart your progress and mark any entrances, exits, and treasures you find. The system is intuitive and easy to use, allowing you to draw a fairly accurate map on your first run through of a level. Eat your heart out, Amerigo Vespucci. The game also allows different classes to develop gathering skills such as mining, wood chopping, or herb picking. While this sounds like an optional diversion, the goods gained from these gathering expeditions are incredibly valuable as they unlock upgraded gear and equipment in the store. Harvesting locations replenish themselves based on your skill, and using the map to remember their locations is essential.